THE ABSOLUTE NATURE OF A RELATIVE UNIVERSE

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In January 1926 a young Russian-born woman left her home in the budding Soviet Empire and arrived in New York on February 19, after celebrating her twenty-first birthday in Berlin. In five years she became an American citizen, and five years after that she published her first novel, We the Living, in the language of her adopted home.
By her death in 1982, Ayn Rand had published several more novels, written several movies, and changed the world in which we live as the founder and chief spokesman for the philosophy of Objectivism, the underlying point of view of the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute – one of the most influential think tanks on the national scene today – and even Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman.
In Rand’s own words, one of the four conceptual columns supporting Objectivism is that “reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” Stated another way, reality, the external world, exists independent of man’s consciousness, independent of any observer’s knowledge, beliefs, feelings, desires, or fears.
Between 1926 and 1936, during Rand’s first decade in the United States when she formulated this perspective, the scientific world underwent a significant upheaval. Following Albert Einstein’s publication of his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 and his General Theory ten years later, physics underwent a complete overhaul. The world of classical physics, with its neat cause-and-effect relationships, came apart at its seams. The work of Rutherford, Einstein, Planck, Dirac, Schroedinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, and others had revealed a subatomic world that did not seem to react as the classical laws of physics predicted. Instead, researchers found that precise predictions appeared impossible, so that they had to use statistical methods to arrive at solutions that their classically trained instincts told them should have been simple cause-and-effect relationships.
In 1926 and 1927, twenty-five-year-old Werner Heisenberg formulated and refined his Uncertainty Principle, which stated in effect that one could not simultaneously determine the position and momentum of a subatomic particle. He and Niels Bohr spent many hours together discussing the implications of this insight. These discussions were so intense that friends reported Bohr brought Heisenberg to tears on at least one occasion.
By late 1927, Bohr published the Copenhagen Interpretation, which proposed a radical interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The Uncertainty Principle stated in effect that the observer was an unavoidable part of the observing process and dramatically influenced the observation. Bohr went beyond this to state that without the observer, the event could not happen. Bohr also said that the subatomic universe of atoms – photons, electrons, and so forth – did not really exist and that these things were no more than a convenient way for humans to visualize theoretical mathematical constructs. This idea took root with the younger generation of physicists, who proselytized it in lectures and classrooms around the world.
The Copenhagen Interpretation troubled several luminaries of this period, among them Einstein and Schroedinger. In a letter to Max Born written on December 4, 1926, Einstein wrote: “The theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer to the secret of the Old One. In any case I am convinced that He does not throw dice.”
These discussions, scientific exchanges, and letters produced headlines around the world as nonscientists struggled to come to grips with the concept that “cause and effect” was not real, at least at the subatomic level. The subtler remonstrations of Einstein and his fellow dissenters got lost in the mind-stretching concepts being broadcast by the adherents of the Copenhagen Interpretation. The public entirely missed the nuances of the discussions, hearing only that the observer creates the event.
Calmer voices tried to insert explanations that could be understood by a regular person not versed in the workings of quantum mechanics. One example that surfaced from time to time was that of a physician taking a patient’s blood pressure. Inevitably, the explanation went, the physician can only measure the blood pressure of a person having his or her blood pressure measured by a physician. In the real world, there is no way to derive the blood pressure of a person simply doing something normal and unremarkable, such as sitting in a chair reading a book. The measured pressure inevitably includes the effect on the patient’s blood pressure of the person taking the measurement. This is completely unavoidable.
In a similar manner, the explanation went, the instrument taking a measurement of an electron’s position causes a deflection of the moving electron so that its path always is a direct result of the observation. Without the observation, that particular path will not exist. Furthermore, whatever path is actually taken by the electron cannot be known except in a theoretical sense, since any attempt to determine that path will inevitably result in another path.
Einstein said that God didn’t play dice, but he clearly understood that at the current state of knowledge in physics, these questions could only be addressed with statistical functions. He took this as a clear indication that there was another level of knowledge that humans needed to penetrate.
These headline arguments were not lost on young Ayn Rand as she began to think about things beyond herself in her newfound home. She sided with Einstein and Schroedinger, insisting that there really is an external universe, unaffected by the presence of human beings.
During this time, the nonscientific intellectual crowd turned sharply left in its quest for absolute knowledge. In a universe that appeared not to follow any rules, these people concluded that the apparent structures surrounding them manifested themselves as something greater than the sum of their individual parts. Furthermore, since the individual parts followed arbitrary rules, whose very existence was subject to the whim of the observer, the macro universe in which we live must be the consequence of arbitrariness.
Good and evil went out the window of the arbitrary observer, landing on the trash heap of nonessential restrictions. Everything became relative. One idea was as good as another – after all, the observer determined the observation. Right and wrong became two sides of the same coin. Winning through competition mattered less than feeling good by participating. The refrain became: “Anything goes!”
The Second World War temporarily slowed the advance of Relativism, so that the decade of the 1950s was practically “normal,” in the sense that people seemed to revert back to prosaic cause-and-effect thinking. The 1960s brought Western culture into conflict with itself. In the United States, the Vietnam War brought this conflict into sharp focus, so that by 1975 the intellectual world was very ready for another way of viewing reality.
Enter Friedjof Capra with his landmark book: The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. In this book, Capra started with the Copenhagen Interpretation on one hand and Eastern Mysticism on the other and married them into a unified whole that carried the Relativism theme into every facet of life. The intellectual left found its relativistic view that one idea is equal to another, that everything is relative, completely vindicated.
Since the National Education Association exercises virtual control over what is taught in American schools, and since this organization is, itself, a bastion of t
he intellectual left, it is hardly surprising that the concept of Relativism has crept into the very fabric of modern America.
Even some very well educated people believe that one scientific point of view is just that, a point of view equal to any other, and steadfastly argue a scientifically untenable idea in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
Relativism has been disastrous for our country. It is high time for the intellectual left to understand that the world of physics really doesn’t support the idea that the observer creates the observation. In the universe in which we live, reality really is independent of how we observe it. Our observations affect this knowable reality precisely because it was there before we observed it. Because it is there, we can affect it.
The left has no scientific support for its relativistic belief system. Good and evil are genuine. Right and wrong are real. Competition matters, and winning is better than losing.

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